On March 21, 2023, Education Ambassador Richard Blanco was one of twelve recipients of a 2021 National Humanities Medal. The honor, presented by President Joe Biden, celebrates an “individual or organization whose work has deepened the nation’s understanding of the human experience.” In his role as Education Ambassador, Blanco helps champion the organization’s free resources for teachers, student projects, and other education initiatives. He is the author of several collections, including Homeland of My Body: New and Selected Poems (Beacon Press, 2023). In 2013, Blanco was selected to read at Barack Obama’s second presidential inauguration. Read this interview with Blanco on the National Humanities Medal and the role the universality of poetry plays in helping to better communities.
Poets.org: What does it mean to you to win a National Humanities Medal?
Richard Blanco: As a Cuban immigrant from a working-class family, I had very little exposure to the humanities. As such, I’ve made a conscious effort throughout the years to advocate for access to the humanities for people from all walks of life, especially students. The National Humanities Medal is an incredible recognition of that effort, which is very much aligned with my service as Education Ambassador at the Academy of American Poets, and our commitment to providing resources for educators so that they can bring the life-enriching power of poetry into their classrooms. I’m hopeful this honor will provide an even bigger platform to continue upholding the humanities, which are seriously under attack all across the country.
Poets.org: How does poetry breathe life into the identity and idea of America?
RB: Poetry often reveals the real names, faces, and emotions behind issues that are too often abstracted by news, politics, and media. I like to think of poetry as the proverbial campfire around which we can share our stories across time and distances, and foster compassion, understanding, and empathy for one another. That’s especially important during these confusing, uncertain, and divisive times in our nation. Poetry lets us understand that, although our stories and experiences are unique and singular, the underlying emotions are universal and we share a common humanity that feels like the very ideals are still striving to achieve for in our democracy, as our motto notes: E pluribus unum, “Out of many, one."
Poets.org: What are you most looking forward to this National Poetry Month?
RB: The opportunity to once again turn people on to poetry. Recently, I spoke at Palmer Trinity High School during their convocation, which they dedicated to National Poetry Month. Wow, over six-hundred students were in attendance, many of whom had never heard a living poet. I wish I had taken photos of their laughter, their sighs, their tears. That’s what this month is all about. Making poetry alive, accessible, and relevant to everyone.
Poets.org: What poem do you continually turn to and why?
RB: “Questions of Travel” by Elizabeth Bishop. Well, practically her entire body of work continues to influence me. Not just because of her poetry, per se, but because I connect with her emotionally on a personal level. I feel she was in exile all her life, a psychological exile. Being effectively orphaned when she was four years old, I see in her work a search for home that parallels my own yearnings and that of my exiled family. And, of course, she was also gay, so that is another personal point of connection. Of course, I have a pantheon of Latinx poets I also turn to because I can relate so powerfully to the concerns and themes we share. But it’s equally powerful to connect with a poet like Bishop precisely because she is not like me on the surface. Seeing myself in Bishop reaffirms the universality of poetry and reminds me to keep believing that my particular life experiences are indeed emotionally universal.
Poets.org: Why does poetry matter?
RB: In the same way that the arts and humanities matter, poetry teaches us to be more self-aware, to have empathy for ourselves and for others. It helps us understand our lives and the lives of others, who on the surface, may seem very different from us. But, at its heart, poetry seeks the common human ground of the emotions we all share, it seeks dialogue, regardless of the particulars of any one ethnicity, race, sexuality, etc. Poetry makes us better humans, and a better human is a better doctor or lawyer, teacher or flight attendant, truck driver or cashier, parent, or sibling. A better anything. A better world, capable of ensuring our peace and survival.